The Nature of the New Covenant and Its Progressive Fulfillment in History, Part 2

Continuing…

A closer look at the text will reveal some salient features that define the nature of this New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34 reads:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. ((All quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bibles))

Verses 31 and 32 declare that a new covenant will be made with Israel and Judah that is superior to the Old Covenant under which the Israelites betrayed their husband. This crucial introduction serves to look at Israel not as a distinctly used nation in the Older Covenant, but the promised nation, the chosen race that would bring together all of the cosmos under Yahweh (I Peter 2:9; Romans 4:13).

Verse 33 states: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Here begins a contrast with the previous verses. Unlike the Old Covenant, which would become obsolete, ((This is a reference to the language of Hebrews 8:13. When Hebrews mentions that the Old Covenant will be obsolete it does not refer in every sense, since Jesus says that all of the Old Testament speaks to the New Testament people)) (that is, in the sense that its priestly institutions would be superseded by the Great Priest, Christ Jesus) this new race will have the law within their hearts, for the law will no longer be in tablets of stone, but internalized. This is a remarkable difference from the Mosaic Covenant. It is significant to note, however, that the internalization of the law is not a new concept (Deut. 6:6; 10:16; 11:18; 30:6; Pss. 37:31; 119:34; Isa. 51:7). The Older Covenant ((I use this language because it clarifies the relationships between covenants. The “Older Covenant” is simply “older” not irrelevant or meant for a specific theocratic nation.)) already provided a basis for the internalization of the Law and obedience, however, unlike the disobedient Jews of the Older Covenant, the true Israel in the New Covenant (Jew and Gentile) would fulfill God’s laws perfectly in the consummative manifestation of the New Covenant. It would be a covenant of priests and kings filled with knowledge of the Law of God. Furthermore, its greatest and remarkable distinction is that it is sure to succeed, for God has promised it.

Jeremiah’s audience must have been amazed by such words. Throughout Jeremiah, the people have suffered punishment due to their disobedience. They were under the yoke of bondage. So on what basis would a New Covenant change their status? God had promised to deliver them from that yoke (Jeremiah 30:8), but most striking is his language in Jeremiah 31:34: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” The basis for this New Covenant is that God will act out of His own grace and power to forgive the sins of His people and establish a new humanity where righteousness dwells (Jeremiah 31:40).

John Calvin, in his commentary on Jeremiah 31:33, writes that the Law spoken of in the New Covenant does not differ in substance from the Law of the Old, but rather in form:

By these words he confirms what we have said, that the newness, which he before mentioned, was not so as to the substance, but as to the form only: for God does not say here, “I will give you another Law,” but I will write my Law, that is, the same Law, which had formerly been delivered to the Fathers. ((Calvin, John. Commentary on Jeremiah. Chapter 31:33))

This point is critical since some wish to propose that the Law in the New Covenant is  opposed to the Mosaic Law. However, the law remains the same, though the equity thereof may suffer epochal adjustments. This law remains forever because it comes from the unchangeable God and is the reflection of His unchanging character. The essential difference is that when the law is placed in the hearts of New Covenant believers, it will be obeyed.

The central question at this point is: “how is this covenant fulfilled in the New Testament?” Though the intent of this paper is not to delve into systematic issues such as “who is in the covenant?” or “who can be baptized?,” the fulfillment of this covenant in the New will answer some of these questions.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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